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When the Cheering Stops: Life After the NFL

Gay Culverhouse. Rowman & Littlefield, $30 (216p) ISBN 978-1-5381-4582-1

The late former Tampa Bay Buccaneers executive Culverhouse (Throwaway Players) delivers a stirring and disturbing account of the lengths the NFL has gone to deny retired players support, a task she forewarns is “not a happy story, but it’s a story that needs to be told.” She asserts that “the path from exultation... to the poverty that follows is a quick three-year trip for some players,” and shares stories of the hardships some have endured once their time on the field is over. She writes of former players who are now homeless and showering in truck stops, and those battling depression, which she calls ex-players’ “number one disability.” Elsewhere, she details startling accounts of how poorly the NFL prepares players for life after the game—noting, for instance, that while the league offers a financial literacy course, it also charges players as much as $5,000 to attend—and recounts a class action lawsuit (the “roots” of which began around 2011) against the league regarding the long-term effects of concussions, “the NFL’s biggest existential crisis.” Throughout, Culverhouse comes across as a fierce advocate for ex-players, who she tirelessly championed until her death from cancer in July 2020. This should be necessary reading for football fans. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020

Fred D’Aguiar. Harper, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-309153-5

D’Aguiar (Children of Paradise) takes a powerful and intimate look at his experiences battling cancer during the Covid-19 pandemic. The author, a UCLA literature and creative writing professor, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in October 2019 and was still fighting his disease when California went into lockdown, leaving him gripped by the thought that the crisis was “another manifestation of my cancer, a pincer attack on my life from outside and from within.” In lyrical, meditative passages, he describes the comfort he found in poetry, relying on Keats’s wisdom to “stay with insecurity rather than run back to certainty.” In addition to shouldering the weight of his diagnosis—which he hid from friends and family to avoid burdening them with another worry during the pandemic—D’Aguiar recalls how he reckoned with his private jeopardy in the face of America’s virulent racism after the murder of George Floyd. Dashes of humor—as when D’Aguiar discusses flatulence, an act which, thanks to his meds, “must announce itself like the big bang”—offer brief respites from the grim subject matter, and, throughout, the author’s resilience inspires. This makes the fragility of life devastatingly palpable. Agent: Jeffrey Leinman, Folio Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Days of Lead: Defying Death During Israel’s War of Independence

Moshe Rashkes, trans. from the Hebrew by Arik Rashkes. Apollo, $16.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-948062-91-6

Originally published in Israel in 1962, this searing memoir recounts Rashkes’s experiences on the front lines of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and his severe wounding in a battle outside Jerusalem. In the opening scene, an 18-year-old Rashkes kills an enemy soldier by beating him over the head with a grenade: “The grenade in my hand was red. Blood dripped from it. The warm touch of the blood made me even more insane.” Later, Rashkes describes firing at the enemy with a machine gun:“A man straightened up, clasped his chest, stood stoutly, then sank down. The clasped hands fell to his sides in a rapid, staccato movement, as if they belonged to a mechanical doll whose spring had run down.” Occasionally, the book’s constricted viewpoint expands to include Rashkes’s poetic appreciation of the natural world and the gallows humor of his fellow soldiers, but the mood throughout is overwhelmingly bleak: “No, there was no salvation from heaven. The machine gun was the only thing I trusted.” Though Rashkes’s impressionistic style successfully evokes the chaos and terror of combat, readers less familiar with the events described will wish for more historical context. Still, this is a powerful portrait of what it feels like to go to war. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The People’s Constitution: 200 Years, 27 Amendments and the Promise of a More Perfect Union

John F. Kowal and Wilfred U. Codrington III. New Press, $29.99 (480p) ISBN 978-1-62097-561-9

Legal scholars Kowal and Codrington debut with a rigorous yet accessible history of how the U.S. constitution has been made “more democratic, more inclusive, and more responsive to the needs of a changing country” through its amendments. They explain that the Framers devised one of the world’s most difficult constitutional amendment processes in order to “lock in” important compromises over slavery, state versus federal sovereignty, and the balance of power between large and small states. Nevertheless, 27 amendments have cleared the high hurdle of two-thirds support in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Kowal and Codrington delve into the forces (controversial court rulings, student protest movements, JFK’s assassination) behind each amendment; profile policy makers including Indiana senator Birch Bayh, the only person besides James Madison to author more than one amendment; and explain why some proposals, including the Equal Rights Amendment and the abolition of the electoral college, have fallen short. Incisive character profiles, brisk historical sketches, and lucid analyses of legal and political matters make this a fresh and invigorating take on the history of American democracy. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare

Seth G. Jones. Norton, $28.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-324-00620-6

The U.S. is “woefully unprepared” to wage the “asymmetric warfare” favored by its main adversaries, according to this well-sourced yet flawed account. Foreign policy analyst Jones (A Covert Action) claims that America’s “obsession with conventional war,” coupled with the Trump administration’s isolationist tendencies, has left the U.S. vulnerable to cyber espionage, disinformation campaigns, “economic coercion,” and other “gray zone” strategies used by Russia, China, and Iran to compete for global influence. Taking each adversary in turn, Jones identifies the architects of these tactics, including Gen. Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission; Russian military chief Valery Gerasimov, whose plans for seizing Crimea in 2014 drew from the playbook the U.S. used to overthrow Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011; and Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who led the paramilitary Quds Force until his 2020 assassination in a U.S. drone strike. Unfortunately, the extended profiles of these officials come at the expense of a more complete assessment of the damage they’ve wrought, and Jones, who cites many former CIA and Defense Department officials, doesn’t fully reckon with the ethical and legal implications of his call for America to ramp up its irregular warfare capabilities. This one-sided account feels more alarmist than essential. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else

Jordan Ellenberg. Penguin Press, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-1-984-87905-9

Math professor Ellenberg (How Not to Be Wrong) shows how challenging mathematics informs real-world problems in this breezy survey. “Geometry,” Ellenberg writes, is “at the heart of what’s required for real figuring in the world,” and in 14 chapters, he covers such questions as why polling works and how artificial intelligence plays chess. In “How Many Holes Does a Straw Have,” he uses topology to prove that the answer is one (pants, meanwhile, have two). Especially relevant are his explanations of the math behind Covid-19 case growth and why more testing makes sense, and how geometry plays into politics. On the thorny issue of redistricting, he convincingly argues that there is significant electoral inequality at play and that math can help solve the problem of gerrymandering. Ellenberg digs into the human side of the science by sharing tales of the feuds and disagreements that punctuated the history of the field (such as a rivalry between a chess master and a computer program) and paying tribute to the genius of the mathematicians whose work underlies today’s disciplines. Math-minded readers will be rewarded with a greater understanding of the world around them. Agent: Jay Mandel, WME. (May)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Nobel Life: Conversations with 24 Nobel Laureates on Their Life Stories, Advice for Future Generations and What Remains to be Discovered

Stefano Sandrone. Cambridge Univ, $24.99 (226p) ISBN 978-1-108-83828-3

Interviews with Nobel Laureate chemists, doctors, physicists, and economists are collected in this uneven survey from neuroscientist Sandrone. The topics Sandrone considers range from career-changing breakthroughs to quotidian matters such as “Where do you keep your Nobel diploma and Nobel medal?” In an interview titled “Leadership and Society,” economist Roger B. Myerson discusses how social institutions operate and what can be done to protect democracy, suggesting voters be allowed “to vote for more than one candidate in a winner-takes-all election.” In “I’ll Show You What a Woman Can Do,” virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi offers an impassioned take on what needs to be done to defeat HIV in the developing world. Some subjects are near-taciturn (“I never had to choose a career path while growing up. I was just drawn to certain stuff,” offers biochemist Tim Hunt), and there’s often little follow-up from Sandrone in places where more experienced interviewers would have pounced. While some scientists have plenty of verve, the questions tend to be dry (most chapters begins with a question that rephrases the sentence “Professor Richard Ernst, you were born and raised in the Swiss city of Winterthur”) and lacking in direction. Despite the moments of insight, this feels like a missed opportunity. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Almost Hemingway: The Adventures of Negley Farson, Foreign Correspondent

Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos. Univ. of Virginia, $29.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8139-4667-2

Adventurer and foreign correspondent Negley Farson (1890–1960) remains something of a mystery in the bustling debut biography from former Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters Bowman and Santos. Born “among the tall pines in Plainfield, New Jersey,” Farson out-traveled, out-fished, and out-drank Hemingway, the authors write, though his fiction has largely been forgotten. As a reporter, he was on the scene during many of the 20th century’s turning points: he saw Lenin speak to vast crowds in Russia, was the only American correspondent to cover the Leipzig War Crimes Trials, and was in London during the Blitz. Yet his alcoholism destroyed his career, and he may have lacked the interiority needed for his work to live on: “There was no impulse to derive meaning or lessons from his adventures; the adventure was both the path and the destination, and it was enough.” Bowman and Santos acknowledge that aspects of Farson’s life remain murky­—“He managed to hide the very deepest parts of himself.... What drove him, over and over, to such alcoholic depths?”—which unfortunately will leave readers wishing for answers as to what made him tick. But fans of the Lost Generation will be entertained by this rip-roaring account of a larger-than-life character mostly lost to history. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP

Mirin Fader. Hachette, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-306-92412-5

Fader, a staff writer for the Ringer, makes good use of her access to NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and his family in her debut, an inspiring rags-to-riches account. In 1991, Antetokounmpo’s Nigerian parents left their native country for better opportunities in Greece, where Antetokounmpo was born a few years later. As a six-year-old, Antetokounmpo accompanied his mother selling trinkets on the streets, but the money was never enough, and his family was frequently evicted from their homes. At age 13, Antetokounmpo’s life took a turn when Athens basketball coach Spiros Velliniatis clocked the long-limbed teen running around the neighborhood and offered to find his parents work if Antetokounmpo joined his team. Once on the court, Antetokounmpo began to attract international attention and, in 2013, was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks—a gamble by the team that paid off when Giannis became the league’s MVP in 2019 and 2020. Fader never loses sight of how Antetokounmpo continued to put his family’s needs first, helping his mother, father, and brothers move to the U.S. in 2014 and purchasing the “ten-thousand-square-foot mansion” that he shares with them today. This captivating portrait of a sincere, diligent, and humble talent serves as a refreshing antidote to the often-depressing stories of those who become corrupted by success. Agent: Anthony Mattero, Creative Artists. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Making It: The Artist’s Survival Guide

Jaša,
with Noah Charney. Rowman & Littlefield, $17.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-5381-4199-1

“The reason we create is to make a legacy that will outlive us, to reach those who might never meet us,” writes artist Jaša in his debut work, an earnest reference guide for aspiring professional artists. With the help of art historian Charney, Jaša touches upon a wide range of subjects, including where to find inspiration, how to exhibit work, and the mindset one should have when deciding to seriously pursue a career in art. Along the way, a number of maxims are doled out. Concerning art school: “Do not mistake life and success at art school for life and success outside of it.” Another grounding lesson is how the medium will always be lucrative, if only for a select few. “The market is ruled by those with big bucks... almost all of that money goes to a tiny percentage of artists.” As a general how-to guide, the work offers indispensable advice; however, its wisdom is still highly subjective. The real strength resides in the autobiographical accounts, as when Jaša recounts the personal highs and lows he’s encountered in an industry that only offers “just a few minutes to demonstrate that you’re worth more.” Written with a dry wit and heartfelt emotion, this will appeal to Jaša’s fans and those dreaming of a career in art. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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